Zhang Bin, a wealthy Chinese businessman, finds himself in the middle of a controversial 2016 donation to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation that The Globe and Mail has reported was linked to the Chinese government, allegedly part of Beijing’s meddling in Canadian democratic processes.
A Chinese citizen with a home in Quebec, Mr. Zhang is president of the China Cultural Industry Association, a government-backed body that promotes Chinese soft power around the world. He is also a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body, and, according to a now-deleted profile of him on the industry association website, a member of the ruling Communist Party.
An examination of corporate records in Canada and Hong Kong, reports in Chinese state media, and interviews with associates paint a picture of a highly connected and highly talented networker, whose close ties to Beijing should have raised flags long before now.
Gerry Groot, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Adelaide in Australia, said Mr. Zhang appeared to have “many points of contact with the United Front Work Department and potentially Chinese intelligence.” The UFWD is a wing of the Communist Party responsible for co-ordinating Beijing’s overseas influence operations. It not only vets prospective members of the party’s advisory body, but also plays a role in promoting Chinese soft power.
The China Cultural Industry Association was established in 2013 under the auspices of China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs, with members including large Chinese companies such as Alibaba and Tencent. Its stated goal is to “advance the campaign of going global” with Chinese culture, and Mr. Zhang cultivated ties around the world, meeting with high-profile figures such as former Israeli President Shimon Peres and Bill Gates.
While in the West, such organizations are often seen as innocuous and apolitical, Dr. Groot said “for the Communist Party, cultural work is always political, no matter whether it’s in China or externally.”
Mr. Zhang and the industry association did not respond to a request for comment.
Zhang Bin was born in Xinzhou, a small city in central China’s Shanxi province, in 1963. He studied economics at university and served two terms on the standing committee of the All-China Youth Federation, which likely put him on track for party membership, a key step to future advancement.
In the 1980s, he ran two state-owned textile factories in Inner Mongolia, before moving into the cultural space in the 1990s, founding a company that invested in Chinese opera, television and gaming.
By 2012, Mr. Zhang was looking to expand into Canada, and shortly before becoming president of the industry association, he bought a $4.08-million mansion in Dorval, with extensive grounds and an attached basketball court, according to Quebec property records.
The following year, he set up an $800,000 fund in the name of Norman Bethune at the University of Toronto, in partnership with Niu Gensheng, a multimillionaire from Inner Mongolia. In 2014, the pair took part in an unveiling of a bronze statue of Mr. Bethune, a Canadian surgeon who travelled to China to support Mao Zedong’s Red Army during the Second World War.
Mr. Bethune is still revered in China today, and seen as a symbol of positive Chinese-Canadian relations, as is former prime minister Pierre Trudeau.
Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said such funding may not have even had a specific goal in mind. “It’s part of the Chinese playbook to identify key people, to be nice to them and create linkages so as to increase the likelihood that they will take favourable positions towards China,” he told The Globe.
Around this time, The Globe reported, Mr. Zhang met with a Chinese diplomat, who instructed him to make a $1-million donation to the Trudeau Foundation. He and Mr. Niu soon announced a new fund that would make gifts to the foundation and the University of Montreal, where Pierre Trudeau was once a law professor. A signing ceremony was held in 2016 at an event attended by China’s then-consul-general to Montreal, Peng Jingtao.
The donations did raise some eyebrows, as did Mr. Zhang’s attendance at a cash-for-access fundraiser with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in May, 2016. While dairy magnate Mr. Niu is known for his philanthropy in China and around the world, Mr. Zhang was a far more shadowy figure, and one clearly connected to the Chinese government, though just how much would take several more years to understand.
Mr. Saint-Jacques said he first met Mr. Zhang in 2014. The businessman told him he was looking for investments, discussing buying a vineyard and other property. However, Mr. Saint-Jacques was unclear about the source of his money and assumed it came from Mr. Niu, who he believed was Mr. Zhang’s uncle.
According to Hong Kong corporate records, Mr. Zhang is director of at least six companies in the Chinese territory, including the non-profit Hong Kong Association of Cultural Industries Limited, a subsidiary of the China Cultural Industry Association, founded in 2015.
Press releases and corporate records show a board stuffed with well-connected business and entertainment figures, including Mr. Niu, Charles Ho, former chair of the Sing Tao News Corporation, property tycoon Hui Ka Yan, and actress Zhao Wei.
Until 2017, this also included Chinese-Canadian billionaire Xiao Jianhua, who was snatched from his home in Hong Kong that year and spirited across the border to China. Mr. Xiao was put on trial in 2022 and sentenced to 13 years in prison for bribery and other offences.
Mr. Zhang appears to have drawn on some of his Hong Kong connections in Canada. In 2016, he became a director of a hotel subsidiary of Evergrande, the property developer founded by Mr. Hui whose shaky financials almost collapsed the Chinese real estate market in 2021.
The following year, the Canadian subsidiary renamed itself Millennium Golden Jiachen Hotel Holdings Ltd., apparently after Mr. Zhang’s Millennium Golden Eagle International (Canada) Inc., which he had incorporated in 2012 and in whose name he made the donation to the Trudeau Foundation four years later.
That donation, and the continuing debate around it, has renewed calls for a foreign-agent registry to be set up in Canada, similar to those in Australia and the United States.
While Dr. Groot warned that such registers do not necessarily stop bad behaviour, which may simply move further underground, he said Mr. Zhang “is definitely an example of someone who should be caught up in that net.”